Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ed Gallagher was Paso Robles' first community development director. He was not.
Ed Gallagher has helped shape Paso Robles over the past 30 years, overseeing the reinvention of its downtown and new east-west connections for traffic, and making sure there’s an ample mix of housing options for residents.
And while he’s seen many changes for the better, he says water and traffic concerns are the key issues that lie ahead for San Luis Obispo County’s second-largest city.
When asked why he chose city planning as a career, Gallagher, 64, who retired in December as the city’s community development director, said: “I just like seeing how it all comes together.”
Gallagher joined the city as its planning director at age 33, as he sought to advance his career and move his family away from traffic-congested Southern California, where he worked for the cities of Fontana and Ontario as a staff planner.
“I also wanted to be on the Central Coast,’’ he said.
He became community development director in 2011.
When he started, Paso Robles’ population was about one-third of today’s nearly 31,000 residents, but it was bracing for growth as the area’s now well-known wine industry was burgeoning around it.
“We had five stoplights in the whole city, a lot of downtown buildings were vacant, there was no Niblick Bridge,” he said of his first months on the job.
In the late 1980s, the Niblick Bridge — the largest municipal overpass in the county — was built to connect the city’s east and west sides over the Salinas River.
By the early 1990s, Gallagher said the city’s now-flourishing downtown was struggling with shuttered storefronts, empty upper stories and varied architectural styles that lacked cohesiveness.
“Originally, the downtown was the shopping center for the city. But as we grew into the ’70s and ’80s, people
didn’t shop in those little types of stores for everything anymore, and a lot of retail sales were leaking down to San Luis Obispo,” he said.
The city planning department obtained a grant to help form a downtown association “to help the downtown merchants to reinvent themselves to, perhaps, no longer be the shopping center in town but the entertainment center,” he said.
Gallagher and his colleagues worked to change the city’s zoning code to remove requirements that property owners had to add parking if upper floors were occupied. The department
also set the stage for the city’s redevelopment agency, which directed a portion of property tax dollars to fix blighted areas. The state dissolved those districts in 2011.
The redevelopment money was used to provide incentives to downtown shop owners to get rid of facades, awnings and other décor on building exteriors that didn’t match the original historic brick-look Paso Robles is now known for. The designs of many shop windows also were shifted back to their original boxy styles, he said.
The redevelopment money also helped Park Cinemas build a movie theater at 11th and Pine streets, a downtown anchor that would later attract restaurants and other shops. But before it could go in, the city had to fix the infrastructure around it.
“Redevelopment was key because there was a storm drain right through where the theater is today,” Gallagher said. “When it rained, water would run down 11th Street from Pine Street all the way to the railroad.”
The city was able to build a new storm drain to divert the water flow beneath the theater.
“So the combination of using redevelopment and changing the zoning really started the beginning of change for the downtown,” he said.
Elsewhere in town, Gallagher’s division assisted the development of several affordable housing projects and, in the early 1990s, worked with the City Council to require developers to make new projects look more attractive.
“For a while, the city was getting the reputation of being the county’s cheap housing so … we started requiring people to dress them up a little more and doing more architectural style stuff, and then with the wine industry growing there became more of a demand for nicer housing.”
Around that time, the city’s construction boom was in full swing.
By the late 1990s, concerns over the North County’s water supply started trickling in. Some expressed worries about its groundwater. In 2004, the city signed a contract to get supplemental water from nearby Nacimiento Lake.
Today, that lake water is a critical component in the city’s water portfolio.
Going forward, Gallagher said water and traffic will continue to pose obstacles for the growing city.
“We will be re-evaluating how reliable are these (water) sources. Do we have enough water to build to our 44,000 population (a benchmark in the city’s current general plan) or do we have to scale back our growth plans?” he said. “That’s the big question mark right now.”
Managing the city’s east side traffic will also be a hurdle, he said.
The city will be working with Caltrans in the years ahead to find a way for people who work in the northeastern industrial areas near the Paso Robles Municipal Airport to get into town without having to negotiate the traffic on Highway 46 East.
Now that he’s retired, though, Gallagher said he’s looking forward to traveling with his wife of 36 years, Madeleine, spending time with their three adult children and working with the new nonprofit group, Paso Cares, to establish a warming station in town for the homeless.
And, when he’s not doing all that, he said locals may spot him in Downtown City Park playing the bagpipes.
“I play in the park just for fun,” he said. “I started 12 years ago. I play other musical instruments so I thought I’d like to try doing that.”